HP’s moltronics research helps energize small tech startups

March 28, 2003 — If transistors continue to shrink exponentially, in six years or so they will bump against a quantum limit and run afoul of Moore’s Law. What’s needed is a new way to make microchips.

Named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the “law” was actually a 1965 prediction that the density of integrated circuits would double roughly every 18 months. That trend can’t continue much longer unless the industry figures out a new way to make microchips.

But there are very few companies that possess the money and technical talent it takes to seriously pursue alternative technologies. That’s where Hewlett-Packard Co. comes in.

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In recent years, HP’s research arm has developed a number of laboratory methods for making molecular computing devices, and in November, the company (along with James R. Heath, a UCLA chemistry professor, and a scientific founder at NanoSys) was awarded a patent on a process to make a wide variety of nanoscale electronic devices. The devices use a crossbar architecture, which consists of two planes of parallel nanowires, perpendicularly aligned, sandwiching electronically switchable molecules at each intersection.

This technology, if scaled up, could eventually prove cheaper than conventional integrated circuit fabrication, which requires a number of painstakingly precise steps to build a component. While HP’s patent opens the way toward a manufacturable molecular electronics technology that’s both inexpensive and scalable, most experts believe commercial nanocomputers are at least a decade away. But Stan Williams, who heads up the quantum science research department at HP Labs, has said that the first use for the chemical assembly process could be for flash memory, and that these products could hit the market in as little as five years.

Despite the long lead time for moltronics, HP’s nanocomputing efforts will have major effects on smaller startups that are working on their own molecular electronics applications. Today’s moltronics companies are developing products that are much simpler than the computers and memory envisioned by HP.

The chemical and biological sensors and photovoltaic materials being developed by moltronics startups could certainly benefit from onboard nanomemory and nanoprocessors, but any company that depends on such futuristic technology as part of its business plan will have a tough time getting support from the investment community.

“There are a number of companies out there developing technologies that look very similar to what HP is doing,” said Stephen Empedocles, director of business development for NanoSys, a Palo Alto company that develops systems using nanowires, nanotubes and nanodots. “They tend to be very small companies, either angel funded, or if they’re lucky venture funded.”

Without the deep pockets of HP, the risk that small moltronics companies face, said Empedocles, is that if they don’t come through with what they say they’re going to do the first time around, they may not get additional money to continue supporting the very large development effort that’s required to actually commercialize memory- and logic-based moltronics devices.

Steve Cullen, director and principal analyst for semiconductors at In-Stat/MDR, said moltronic microchips are too far off for his firm to begin tracking. “Most of what we look at here is stuff that’s going to have some kind of a market within the next five years, and this, really when you look at heavy commercialization, is kind of out of that window.”

That doesn’t mean startups won’t benefit in the short term from HP’s presence in the moltronics arena, however. “I actually think it’s a very promising, very important move,” said Empedocles. HP’s efforts to build a nanocomputer could pave the way for better moltronics sensors because they share many of the same design and manufacturing considerations. Both require making high quality nanowires, assembling them into functional structures, making electrical contact, and functionalizing the chemically active surfaces. “It’s all the same steps required for a nanocomputer, but on a much simpler scale, in which 10 wires or a hundred wires is extremely valuable, not 10 million wires.”

Cullen points out another indirect benefit HP’s research: access to technical presentations conferences and patent applications. “There’s a certain amount of learning to be had from both of those, in that sense they are advancing the art as it becomes available to other people.”

In the case of NanoSys, which shares certain key moltronics patents with HP, such a benefit is doubly good, but for other companies, HP’s patent filings are a mixed blessing. “It gives the smaller companies less room to maneuver, and it perhaps makes the VCs look at them a little more closely to see whether they are going to have patent interference problems.”

Moltronics startups could also reap the benefit of legitimacy generated by HP’s efforts. “I think there probably are a set of people out there that see the legitimacy of it,” said Cullen. “It’s just a question of, ‘do they want to invest now or wait until its a little bit closer to reality?'”

Christopher J. Gintz, president of Molecular Electronics Corp. based in Hilton Head Island, S.C., agrees. “You need to have major companies making an investment,” he said, “so that the less timid angel investors and the less timid venture capitalists will put some money in the space.”

Jim Protsenko is director of business development and chief operating officer of Molecular Nanosystems Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif. He said HP’s effort boost the awareness of “all the companies involved in similar pursuits, nanoelectronics specifically, and to the field of nanotechnology in general. As a small company working on leveraging unique properties of carbon nanotubes in sensors and other types of electronic devices, we do benefit from such ‘credibility spillover,’ positioning us more favorably with potential investors, partners and customers.”


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